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5 Skills Every Engineering Manager Needs to Have

Written By April Bohnert | July 13, 2023

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Software engineering is all about creating, innovating, and optimizing solutions. Yet, without proper management, the brightest minds can flounder and the most innovative solutions can lose their impact. A skilled engineering manager stands as the linchpin, guiding technical teams to successful outcomes and ensuring the broader objectives of an organization align with the day-to-day execution of projects. 

Indeed, a study by Google’s Project Oxygen, which looked at what makes a great manager, found that effective management significantly impacts team outcomes, turnover rates, and overall job satisfaction. When considering these findings, it becomes clear that the difference between success and failure often rests on the shoulders of an engineering manager.

As the Google study showed, the significance of effective engineering management truly can’t be overstated. These professionals act as the bridge between technical teams and business stakeholders, demonstrating communication, leadership, strategy, and, not least of all, profound technical understanding. 

But what skills does it take to navigate this pivotal role effectively? What are the talents that set apart those who excel in engineering management, driving not just the success of their teams but also the larger success of the organizations they serve? In this article, we’ll delve deep into these questions, exploring the key skills every engineering manager needs and providing tangible examples to illuminate the path for aspiring engineering managers and those tasked with hiring them. 

1. Technical Expertise

The first skill in our exploration is the bedrock of any engineering role: technical expertise. An engineering manager, at their core, is still an engineer. They might not be in the trenches coding every day, but a thorough understanding of the domain, the technology stack, and the nitty-gritty of the team’s work is a must.

Technical expertise enables engineering managers to guide and support their teams through the complexities of their projects. They can effectively evaluate the feasibility of solutions, foresee potential roadblocks, and provide tangible help to their team members. This expertise, combined with leadership skills, allows them to act as a resource for their team, rather than merely a supervisor.

Consider an engineering manager leading a team developing a machine learning algorithm. They might not be writing the algorithm themselves, but they should understand the principles of machine learning, the programming languages being used, and the potential challenges that could arise. 

One day, the team hits a roadblock: the algorithm isn’t learning as expected. The manager, with their technical expertise, can guide the team, suggesting potential adjustments or identifying overlooked data patterns that may be affecting the algorithm. This guidance can be the difference between a successful project and a stagnant one.

Hence, an engineering manager’s technical expertise is not just about understanding what the team is doing but also being able to guide, support, and facilitate the team’s work. The aim is not to be the most skilled individual contributor, but rather a leader who can navigate the technical landscape with proficiency and confidence. 

Having solid technical foundations not only earns the respect of the team members but also equips managers with the tools to make informed decisions that directly affect project outcomes. It’s a skill that is honed over years of hands-on experience and continuous learning, and its value in the realm of engineering management is beyond measure. 

2. Communication and Collaboration

An engineer may spend a lot of their time interfacing with machines, but an engineering manager spends a considerable amount of their time interfacing with people. In fact, a recent report found that the average engineering manager spends 17.9 hours per week in meetings. Hence, one of the paramount skills every engineering manager needs is the ability to communicate effectively and foster collaboration.

Engineering managers are often the conduit between various stakeholders — the technical team, other department leaders, clients, or executives. They need to be able to translate technical jargon into business language and vice versa. For instance, they might need to explain to the C-suite why investing in a particular technology will give the company a competitive edge. On the flip side, they need to communicate the business’s needs and vision to their team to guide their work in the right direction.

But communication is not merely about talking; it’s also about listening. Active listening fosters open dialogue, encourages team members to share their ideas, and creates a collaborative environment where everyone feels their input is valued. The best engineering managers are not just effective communicators, they are also adept at building strong relationships within their team and beyond.

Let’s paint this with a real-world example. Suppose a critical bug is discovered in a software application. The engineering manager needs to communicate this to the client, explaining what the issue is, how it happened, and how it will be fixed. Simultaneously, they also need to discuss with their team to understand the technical details, guide them through the resolution process, and ensure everyone is on the same page.

In this scenario, the ability to communicate clearly and collaborate effectively can make the difference between a swiftly resolved issue and a prolonged problem that strains client relationships and team morale.

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3. Leadership and People Management

The shift from an individual contributor to a managerial role often involves moving from doing the work to guiding others in their work. As such, one of the most significant skills every engineering manager needs is the ability to lead and manage people effectively.

Leadership and people management involve many sub-skills. A good engineering manager knows how to set clear expectations and define achievable goals. They know how to delegate tasks based on the strengths of their team members, and they understand how to provide constructive feedback that helps their team grow. Perhaps most importantly, they know how to motivate and empower their team, fostering a positive and productive work environment.

Consider the scenario of a cross-functional team working on a major product release. This team comprises software developers, testers, UX/UI designers, and maybe a data scientist or two. Each of these team members has a different skill set, and they likely see the project from their unique perspective.

In this scenario, the engineering manager’s leadership and people management skills come to the forefront. They need to ensure everyone understands the project’s goals, delegate tasks effectively, and ensure all the pieces come together seamlessly. They need to maintain open lines of communication, manage conflicts, and keep the team motivated even when facing tight deadlines or unexpected challenges.

Successfully leading a team to achieve a major milestone like a product release requires a deep understanding of people management. The manager needs to understand what drives each team member, how they work best, and how to bring out their full potential. It’s not just about managing the work; it’s about leading the people who do the work.

To put it succinctly, leadership and people management skills are about inspiring others to do their best work. These skills are crucial for any engineering manager and lay the foundation for a high-performing, cohesive team. 

4. Strategic Thinking and Problem Solving

Beyond the confines of day-to-day project management and team leadership, engineering managers must possess the ability to think strategically and solve problems. As much as they’re the captains of their respective teams, they’re also the navigators, charting the course toward the organization’s broader goals.

Strategic thinking involves identifying long-term goals and aligning them with the overall business objectives. This might mean selecting which projects the team should tackle based on the company’s strategic priorities or deciding to adopt a new technology that will position the company for future success.

Closely related to strategic thinking is problem solving, another crucial skill every engineering manager needs. In an industry where change is the norm, engineering managers must be adept at analyzing complex problems and making data-driven decisions. They need to understand the cause-and-effect relationships, foresee potential obstacles, and develop robust solutions.

Imagine an engineering manager faced with scalability issues as the user base of their company’s application grows. This is not a problem that can be solved with a simple bug fix. Instead, it requires a strategic approach, analyzing the root causes of the scalability issues, and considering various potential solutions.

The manager needs to balance the immediate needs of handling increased user traffic with the long-term goals of developing a scalable architecture that can support future growth. They might have to make tough decisions, like prioritizing refactoring code or investing in more robust infrastructure, which could delay new feature development in the short term but would provide significant benefits in the long run.

In this example, the ability to think strategically and solve problems is pivotal. It ensures the manager not only addresses the immediate issue at hand but also sets the foundation for the application’s future success, aligning it with the company’s growth objectives.

In essence, strategic thinking and problem-solving enable engineering managers to guide their teams and the organization toward a successful future. They allow managers to navigate through the complex landscape of engineering, making informed decisions that propel the team and the business forward.

​​5. Adaptability and Continuous Learning

In an industry characterized by rapid technological advancements and constant evolution, the ability to adapt and learn continuously is a non-negotiable skill every engineering manager needs. Embracing change, navigating ambiguity, and staying ahead of industry trends are crucial aspects of an engineering manager’s role.

Adaptability is about more than just coping with change. It’s about embracing it, harnessing it, and using it as a tool for innovation and improvement. Engineering managers need to be agile in their approach, willing to pivot strategies, adopt new technologies, or reorganize projects as needed.

For example, consider the impact of emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain, or quantum computing. An adaptable engineering manager recognizes the potential these technologies present and proactively seeks to understand them and consider how they could be incorporated into their team’s work or the company’s broader strategy.

Continuous learning goes hand-in-hand with adaptability. The most successful engineering managers are those who never stop learning. They keep abreast of industry trends, new technologies, and best practices. They also foster a culture of learning within their teams, encouraging team members to learn, share knowledge, and continuously improve.

In this light, continuous learning is not merely a personal attribute, but a key cultural element within a team. An engineering manager that promotes a culture of learning creates a dynamic, curious team that is not afraid to explore new territories, take on challenges, and grow both personally and professionally.

Navigating the Road to Successful Engineering Management

Through our exploration, we’ve dissected the intricate mosaic of skills every engineering manager needs. Yet, the pursuit of these skills is not a destination but a journey. No engineering manager will have mastered all these skills to perfection. But the aspiration to continuously grow in these areas, the quest to refine these skills day after day, is what separates a good manager from a great one.

These skills form a clear roadmap for anyone involved in the engineering management field. Whether you’re a seasoned professional looking to sharpen your skills or you’re just embarking on your journey, understanding these skills provides a path to follow. It’s not about ticking boxes or achieving an abstract ideal. Instead, it’s about holistic growth as a leader who can inspire a team, steer successful projects, and contribute to your organization’s larger vision.

Engineering management is a richly layered role that goes beyond technical knowledge. The heart of it lies in creating an environment that champions innovation, cultivates open communication, and celebrates continuous learning. With a focus on these key skills, you can shape the direction of your team, influence the broader technology landscape, and leave your mark as a leader in this vibrant field.

This article was written with the help of AI. Can you tell which parts?

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